What You Bring With You: A Review of BioShock Infinite
The BioShock games, says creative director Ken Levine, are a Rorschach test. What you see will depend on who you are and what you believe. There are no right answers. When I look at BioShock Infinite, I see three things. I see a masterpiece of video game storytelling. I see a woman who needs rescuing, and who challenges my expectations of what that means. And I see a risky, disturbing exploration of American racism, which led me to acknowledge how ill-equipped I am to say anything on that front at all.
I don’t know how to write about BioShock Infinite. The first two things, yes, I can muddle about those just fine. The third, however, is not a matter I have ever written on, and I doubt that I am the right person for the job. But to leave that aspect out of any discussion of this game would be missing the point entirely. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from BioShock Infinite, it’s that trying to avoid mistakes never ends well. So here goes.
(Minor spoilers ahead.)
As you first arrive in the flying city of Columbia, set in a revisionary version of 1912, you’re eased into a false sense of nostalgic wonder. There is a nagging feeling that all is not right here, but even so, it’s impossible to not be seduced by the bright sunlight, the lush gardens, the red-white-and-blue banners draped around tidy shopfronts. This is classic Americana at its most sugarcoated, and the downright stunning design serves up one delight after another. Airships! Mechanical horses! Barbershop quartets! Even the tutorial lures you in, teaching you combat mechanics through carnival games at the town fair. I was reminded of Disneyland’s Main Street USA — a polished, too-clean place that hands you an ice cream and soothes you with tales of how wholesome things were in the good ol’ days.
You exist in this state for forty-five minutes or so until the rug is mercilessly pulled out. The front end of Columbia is America as we want to remember it, but it is an America that never was. Turn away from the cheerful lights and trimmed hedges, and you’ll find squalid bathrooms, set aside for “Colored and Irish.” Enter one of these, and the man inside begs you to leave, afraid that you’ll get him in trouble. A charming beachfront scene is marred upon discovering the poorly treated worker sweating over the water pumps, far out of sight. The upper class knows these things exist. They’re complicit in it. The emblem of the police force reads “Protecting Our Race.” Military recruitment posters show a dapper blond-haired boy chasing away historically accurate racial caricatures with his rifle. I felt sick to look at it. What made me sicker still was to realize that the affluent residents of Columbia were not monsters. They were all too human. They had chosen to ignore the inequalities surrounding them not because they were inherently evil, but because it was easy. Life for them was perfect, and they saw no reason to rock the boat. They could choose to dismiss the struggles of others, and they would suffer no consequences for it. I considered this privilege of choice, and knew that it was one that I, as a white person, share — not just in life, but as a player of this game. I did not see my face cruelly distorted in those posters. I did not see my heritage reflected in the segregated public spaces. I could disconnect from that ugliness, if I had wished to. I cannot say what it is like to lack that choice. I cannot say what this game would be like for those who do. And I strongly believe that anyone going into this game, regardless of who they are, should know what they’re getting into. This is not just some fantasy shooter to be picked up on a whim. This is an aggressive depiction of horrors that are all too real.
Which is not to say that racism is the only theme explored in this game. No, there’s religion, nationalism, manifest destiny, and a side order of quantum mechanics — for starters. It is, in its way, the most American game I’ve ever played. Perhaps that’s why the issues of race have stuck with me more than the rest. It’s an aspect of our country’s history many of us are taught poorly (I certainly was), something rarely shown with this level of bluntness. I’ve spent the past several days reading about American expansion and nativism, trying to understand how much of what’s there in the game is true. Much of it, it turns out. Too much.
I’ve heard the institutionalized racism portrayed by BioShock Infinite dismissed as the trappings of a time gone by, a wrong that we have long since righted. But early in the game, I found myself in a Masonic-style fraternal house belonging to the Order of the Raven, a society that mirrors the KKK (the dining hall features a painting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, complete with a haloed John Wilkes Booth). I picked up an audio recording made by Father Comstock, Columbia’s leader and prophet. “What exactly was the Great Emancipator emancipating the Negro from?” he says. “From his daily bread. From the nobility of honest work. From wealthy patrons who sponsored them from cradle to grave. From clothing and shelter.” As I listened, my stomach sank. I recognized that appalling argument, but not from fiction, and not from a history book. Similar words were spoken just three weeks ago by an attendee at a CPAC panel on minority outreach. We need to be talking about racism in America. Now. Today. Is BioShock Infinite a good way to go about that discussion? I don’t know. For my part, I found that the directness with which the subject matter was presented led me to consider my own social status and racial privilege in a different light. But just because I found value in what this game had to offer does not mean that others will, or that they should. As I said at the start, it’s all a matter of what you bring with you — or, more to the point, what society and history have forced you to bring.
The thing I admired most about BioShock Infinite was that for all its difficult themes, it refused to provide catharsis for them. For a while, I thought I could see the setup for the tired parable about the good-hearted white person who witnesses racial injustice and swoops in to make it all better. But thankfully, that never comes. Not all stories have a happy ending. Not all revolutions are good. And most importantly, you can never change the past. We see that theme play out again and again, on scales both grandiose and achingly personal. The game asks hard questions about the darkest aspects of American history and human nature, but delivers no opinion on why such things happen. It trusts its players to come to the answers on their own.
The player character, Booker DeWitt, is a well-chosen instrument for carrying out such a story. I can’t call him the hero, for he isn’t one. He flinches at the term early in the game, but modesty has nothing to do with it. He was a cavalryman at the Wounded Knee Massacre, and his actions there have left him deservedly haunted. Though he is a sympathetic character, he is not an admirable one. I don’t think the player is ever meant to become him in the way most games intend. We’re only meant to walk a mile in his shoes, to feel the weight of sins that have no hope of redemption. “You think a dunk in the river is gonna change the things I’ve done?” he says. He is a sharp contrast to Father Comstock, who is only too happy to blame the evils of the world on everyone but himself. He obsesses over the idea of Columbia as “another ark for another time,” with himself as Noah, and his successor as the flood. But though Booker has chosen a more honest path, his admission of guilt does not make him a good person. Some things, the game tells us, can never be fixed.
For a game this aware of the player’s expectations, it is no accident that it begins as a story about rescuing an innocent girl locked away in a tower. The trope is deliberately used, then tweaked into something I can’t quite categorize. No, Elizabeth cannot fight. Yes, the mission objective “Rescue Elizabeth” comes up more than once. But never did I feel that it was a comment on Elizabeth’s strength or competence, nor was she painted as a prize to be won. The key here is that her relationship with Booker is not romantic, even remotely. We can only look at her through his eyes, after all, and what we see is a person he respects (eventually) and cares about. She enters the game with all the naïveté you’d expect from a young woman who has spent her life in isolation, but she is quickly revealed to be something complex and powerful. As the game went on, I began to feel that I was her sidekick, not the other way around. This is not to say that I felt railroaded or that I lacked a sense of control. Rather, I felt the story belonged every bit as much to Elizabeth as it did to Booker. Their narratives are inextricably intertwined.
Elizabeth is one of the best examples of how to blend game mechanics with storytelling that I have ever seen (perhaps the best). The bond between her and Booker is vital, and the game backs it up in every way it can. During combat, Elizabeth scrounges for healing kits and ammo, and brings you back around when you get knocked out. The way that it’s executed is a constant reinforcement that Booker and Elizabeth are in this together. It’s the little things, like the way she yells “Booker, catch!” before tossing you a reloaded weapon. Rather than Booker accepting this help automatically, the player must take a moment out of fighting to respond to her. Elizabeth doesn’t feel like a combat pet, or a support class. She felt like a partner. I felt safer with her there, and I never got the impression that she wasn’t capable of holding her own in a fight. She’d simply never learned how (in contrast, female police officers and revolutionaries can be encountered throughout the game). And out of combat, Elizabeth behaves in an amazingly organic way. She is autonomous, but she never gets lost or stuck or triggers enemies. As you run around, she explores on her own, examining objects and leaning against furniture. Her clothes tear and grow dirty as the game goes on. Depending on her mood, her body language changes. At one point, I found her crouching solemnly over a man’s corpse. She took a moment, then lay his hands across his chest. Elizabeth felt real, so much so that I found myself nearly shaking with anger on her behalf during one particular sequence (for those who have played it: Comstock House). She was a character I truly connected with, and her story kept me riveted from beginning to end. If she hadn’t worked, the game would’ve fallen apart.
The weaker element, I felt, was the handling of Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the Vox Populi, a revolutionary movement vying for control of Columbia. She is incredibly difficult to discuss without venturing deeper into spoiler territory. Skip ahead if you want to go into the game fresh (which I recommend that you do). Otherwise, highlight the following:
From the start, I was on Fitzroy’s side. Her movement begins as a fight for labor rights and equal treatment — things that cannot reasonably be argued with. By the time I caught up with her, I’d been wading through Comstock’s supremacist filth for long enough that I was more than willing to do whatever it took to bring him crashing down. But Fitzroy is not one of the good guys. She loses sight of what the cause should be, and her notion of revolution becomes increasingly ruthless. Her story has roots in the real-world anarchist violence of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and as far as the intent goes, I found that arc to be a believable one. But the shift happens too fast. Without picking up the optional (and well hidden) audio logs that give insight into her backstory, I’m not sure that the player would be able to keep up. And even with the logs, I was still feeling sympathetic toward her by the time Booker was saying “she and Comstock deserve each other.” Do they? They’re both violent, unstable, and manipulative, sure. But Comstock has built an oppressive society around his own self-interests. Fitzroy is reacting against that society, one that has gone out of its way to dehumanize her. And as for the Vox Populi, the fact that they all were on board with Fitzroy’s bloody turnaround gave me pause. Even in upper class Columbia, you can find underground support for the oppressed, and I would’ve liked to have seen similar depth in the Vox Populi. I know the takeaway here is not that labor movements are inherently bad, but I felt the lack of layers muddled the message. Perhaps dissent within the movement would have been too much to cram into one game. Or perhaps this is just one splotch on the Rorschach test that does not sit well with me.
Regardless of however I might feel about the themes and the content, the skill with which they were delivered is unparalleled. Even if you took away the combat, this would still be a story that belongs wholly to video games. It’s too intimate for anything else. The constant sense of discovery, the rapid oscillation between wonder and horror, the sense that this is a world you yourself are inhabiting — it’s all reliant on an interactive form of environmental storytelling that can’t exist elsewhere. I spent hours pawing around all the nooks and crannies. I was constantly rushing to grab screencaps. I could write pages and pages more on all the marvelous little details I don’t have room for here (the songs, the foreshadowing, the twins — god, I loved the twins, and not just for the line about chromosomes). This is the kind of storytelling the medium was meant for. Whether or not the story itself was worthy of that is entirely up to each individual player. I felt that it was, for the most part. You may not. And that’s okay. The experience of playing BioShock Infinite is one largely determined by the history you’ve been made to carry. As the game says, that’s not something any of us can change.